UCLA cross country recently went through some major changes, many of which come in the form of a newly minted coaching staff.
Former coach Forest Braden was in charge of all 38 runners last year when he headed the cross country team, but in 2017 the team will be split between men and women with assistant coaches Devin Elizondo and Jennifer DeRego in charge of each team, respectively.
DeRego is the newest addition to the team and brings 14 years of coaching experience to UCLA, most recently as the head of cross country and track and field at Heritage High School in Brentwood, California.
Aside from her almost 15 years of experience as a coach, DeRego brings something to the women’s team Braden simply could not.
“One of the things that I bring is the female presence. I’ve been there, I’ve done that,” DeRego said. “I competed in college and I competed at the professional level at the Olympic trials and … it’s just a different relational aspect to a female coach.”
DeRego said she hopes a female presence will help galvanize the women of UCLA cross country, and she has already begun preparing them for the long road ahead.
“We want to make nationals and we want to have a presence at the NCAA championship,” DeRego said. “In order to get there you backwards plan and you have to make some pretty good meets. … but there’s no doubt in my mind, these women are incredible.”
DeRego’s counterpart on the men’s side will be Elizondo.
Elizondo was the head of cross country for UC Davis before assuming his post at UCLA, but in the 1990s he ran track for the Bruins alongside the team’s new director, Avery Anderson.
“We all have an affinity for our alma matter and (Anderson’s) vision, I think, is going to be a really important piece of what we do and our success,” Elizondo said. “(I’m) just so happy to be able to do this with someone who I respect as a person and as a coach.”
The cross country team will have to get used to a new hierarchy this year, but Elizondo said he wasn’t too worried about the new faces affecting the team’s performance.
“The team culture is really special and those guys really care for each other and want the best out of one another,” Elizondo said. “Anytime you have this transition, you’re always looking for those rocks to be able to get the work done and know that their success is predicated on them wanting to do all the work that will help them get there.”
The team has wasted no time getting even closer.
Right now, the cross country team is living 7,000 feet above sea level in Flagstaff, Arizona, their yearly high-altitude training camp well underway.
Despite the new coaches, there won’t be any freshmen on the men’s side this year, just a handful of transfers and many returners.
One of those returners is redshirt sophomore Colin Burke, who placed 11th at the Pac-12 Cross Country Championships with a time of 24:42.8 in 2016.
“So far, I think (the changes) are pretty good. I mean everyone is very very motivated,” Burke said. “We want to maximize the potential of this team and I still think … we have a very talented young corps that can continue to get better.”
At that Pac-12 meet, there were two Bruins who bested Burke, but both were seniors at the time.
That leaves him as UCLA’s fastest 8k runner going into this year, and he already has his mind set on the bigger meets that come at the end of the season.
“We’re just trying to get ourselves ready as best as we can for the postseason which includes Pac-12s and regionals,” Burke said. “With the experiences I’ve had … I’m definitely in a better spot than I was the last two years to really contend for a top finish.”
Despite the foresight their collective mindsets represent, UCLA cross country will have to travel a total of 40,000 meters spread across five meets before they reach the postseason. And they will take on the first 8,000 on Friday in Flagstaff at the George Kyte Classic.